Last week, we talked about how meaning is not objective. Every appeal for a rational justification of meaning in turn requires its own appeal.
This is the “infinite reference problem,” and pursuing it in search of some ultimate and rational end-point is a “chasing after the wind.”
We’re given this lesson from Ecclesiastes.
But, for us Christians, the future is not bleak. We have a unique solution, thanks to Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t solve the infinite reference problem, but it creates a practical meaning-fountain that annihilates the “existential monster.”
Everything is Meaningless
First, it’s vital to understand the extremely uncomfortable lesson given to us by Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes, the assumption is that when a man dies, he’s dead, and that’s it. You go to the grave. Your dust goes into the ground, your breath goes back to God. You’re finished.
“I also said to myself, ‘As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same spirit/breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit/breath rises upward and if the spirit/breath of the animal goes down into the earth?’
So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”
His early conclusion is to “just stop” on the axial value of enjoying your toil and lot.
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them — for this is their lot.”
The essential premise of Ecclesiastes is that we’re not going to be around after we die.
Leaving a legacy still leaves uncertainty.
- Our bequests?
- Our treatises?
- Our progeny?
We cannot be certain in any of it.
“For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?”
Thus, the “just stop” existential conclusion:
“Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun — all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Additionally, investments (though uncertain) are lauded (11:1-6), and obedience to God is demanded (11:7-10) because it’s our duty, and because we’ll risk his judgment — in life.
Many mainstream Christian teachers would like Ecclesiastes not to exist, or to say something other than what it does.
They’d prefer that it conclude with a rejection of “everything is meaningless,” as if teeing up a ball earlier only to finally smash it out of the park.
But that’s not what happens.
“Remember [the Creator], before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath returns to God who gave it.
‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.”
Even though everything is ultimately meaningless, we still create meaning since we’re beings with innate and/or molded interests. Each one of us is a “meaning fountain” — as is God himself.
It’s not about what simply is meaningful in a vacuum. It’s about what is regarded meaningful, according to the interests of beings with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that we generate meaning in this way through the provisions of life that we enjoy. We find meaning in food, drink, our projects, our families, our investments, and our thankful obligation to our Creator.
But, for us, that “generation” dies. In the end, we all go kaput.
That’s the sad and bleak part of all of this.
Then Comes Christus Victor
Paul tells us that man’s physical death is a consequence of his having sinned:
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.”
Through the appeal of baptism, we can voluntarily die to our sins. We are “baptized into his death,” which has a real and profound result:
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
In Paul’s scathing first letter to the Corinthians, he calls out those who would deny the down-the-road resurrection of the dead.
He makes an argumentum ad absurdum in support of that general resurrection, which is this: Why the heck would we risk life and limb without a prospective purpose?
1 Corinthians 15:30-32a
“And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour [if there is no resurrection of the dead]? I face death every day — yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained?”
And then 32b:
“If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”
That’s technically a quote from Isaiah — but it reminds you of another book, doesn’t it?
Without these resurrections, our faith is useless says Paul (v. 13-14).
Instead, we have a hope in that down-the-road resurrection, because of victorious Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:54,57b
“When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, we’re back in Ecclesiastes-Land without the general resurrection.
The general resurrection doesn’t make Ecclesiastes false. Ecclesiastes was correct — “upright and true” — when it said that there was no objective underpinning of meaning, and that meaning is generated by interests and experience.
But the sighing sadness of Ecclesiastes has been eliminated. “Where, O death, is your sting?” writes Paul quoting Hosea.
The Limitless Future
We’re in a pickle when we demand, for every statement of meaning, an appeal to a higher justification.
But what if we simply demand a future justification?
And what if our future keeps going?
Suddenly, while the infinite reference problem still exists (and can never be solved), it can at least be made practically moot by the fact that we’ll always have new and novel prospects — forever — after the advent of that “New Earth.”
Really, Really Limitless
Some folks are afraid that we’ll get bored.
While we have a sacred hope that being in the presence of God will be overwhelmingly satisfying, it’s a hope impossible to convey or even conceptualize.
So let’s also say: “Actually, eternity probably won’t ‘run out.'”
- First, our material brains don’t store things very well. Can you recall what you were doing exactly one year ago? No, you can’t. You even find new enjoyable elements in movies you’ve seen dozens of times. You take pleasure and satisfaction in that “weakness” of perception and memory.
- Second, God’s universe is likely stocked with innumerable things to discover. And the time it would take to discover even a miniscule fraction of that universe would represent a period under which innumerable new potential discoveries would be born.
- Finally, however God’s universe is brimming with things to discover, it’ll be brimming over exponentially more with things we’ll be building ourselves for his glory.
No “Objective Meaning”; Rather, Endless Meaning
Many apologists rely on the idea of “objective meaning” in order avoid existential anxiety. They also use it as a logical wildcard in service of a rubber sword “Godproof” — often, they’ll threaten the listener with existential emptiness if they don’t accept the “objective meaning” they’re selling.
This is a very, very common tactic. But it’s not Biblical.
The Biblical message is that meaning is not objective. It’s generated by subjects with interests.
The writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t say, ‘Everything is meaningful, because it is grounded on some objective source of meaning.’
Rather, he said, ‘Everything is meaningless, and this is an upright and true teaching.’
We attain our hope by means of Christ, by whom death is conquered and obliterated. This grants us a beautiful device that allows us to generate meaning forever — and it has an infinite-year warranty.
This is our grand and overwhelming “happy non-ending.”
Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.
- This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
- By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.
Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).
This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.
It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.
It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.
This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.
We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:
The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.
The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).
The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.
The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:
And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.
To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.
It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.
Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.
When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.
This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:
- (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
- (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
- (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.
This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.
Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.
We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.
The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible
While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.
That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.
“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.
- Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
- Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
- What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”
“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”
And so Solomon just stopped.
He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).
The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.
The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.
The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.
But, Objective Meaning is Useful
“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”
“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.
Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”
This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.
But, Not in the Bible
If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!
They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.
If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”
The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.
Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.
See the follow-up to this post: